The first-graders were getting fidgety. A good hour and a half into the last-day-of-the-year awards ceremony at Wyngate Elementary School, in Bethesda, they wiggled and squirmed and waited their turn for one of the coveted prizes: a certificate of merit for perfect attendance.
Finally, Principal Barbara Leister called a handful of names.
"This award takes a healthy person and an exciting classroom," she told the crowd of grade schoolers and their beaming parents, packed into the school gym. "This is not an easy task."
Four of the first-grade winners were matter-of-fact about making it to school every single day of the year. "Well, it's a law, you know," said Wally Bartlett. "Yeah, and if you get sick, you can just cover your mouth when you cough," said Jackson Giuricich, demonstrating with his fist.
Could they imagine going to school 180 days straight in second grade? No problem. Until fifth grade? "As long as I don't get yamonia," Wally said.
How about going to school every last day until they graduate from high school? Twelve years of perfect attendance. "Oh my," said Ting-Shen Chen, eyes widening. Said Trevor Wilson: "That's a lot of spelling tests."
Indeed. Yet this year, although no official records are kept, at least two Maryland students have done just that.
Monique Hayes, who just graduated from Oxon Hill High School in Prince George's County and Hye Lin Sue, a recent graduate of Montgomery County's Sherwood High School, both made it to school through rain, snow, sniffles, boredom, spring fever, the May 10 bomb hysteria and bad cases of senioritis.
In a world where everyone has sick days, personal leave and mental health breaks, 12 years of perfect attendance is a rare feat that testifies to the virtues of endurance, diligence and responsibility.
Hayes, a petite and poised aspiring writer, has not missed one day of school since she set out with a pink backpack, lunch box and umbrella on her first day of kindergarten. Sue's perfect attendance record dates to first grade.
Both are college-bound honor students. Both loved learning. And both say they are simply carrying on family traditions.
"My mom went to school every day for 12 years in Korea. When she got sick, my grandfather would just take her piggyback," said Sue, an unaffected young poet. "I never thought anything of it. It was just my job to go to school."
Hayes is following in the footsteps of her father, McKinley. "I thought it would be an important accomplishment," she said, "something I could tell my children about."
In Hayes's neat brick home in Fort Washington, the dining room china cabinet is filled with trophies, plaques, merit certificates, honor patches and pins, band programs and copies of the Searchlight, the student newspaper she edited.
A black binder holds page after laminated page of her award-winning essays. Across the bottom of her report card, showing a 3.5 grade-point average, a message from the Prince George's County superintendent reads: "Attendance is the foundation for your child's education."
It's a message Hayes, who will attend Sweet Briar College in Virginia, took to heart. For 13 years, she asked her parents to schedule medical appointments late in the afternoon, after school. She took tissues with her to school if she had a cold. Twice, when the school bus didn't show up, her father, an assistant principal, called the bus lot and got one to come just for her.
Like her father, Hayes said she simply didn't want to miss anything. The one time that going to school was a real chore was prom day. "Most of my friends spent the day getting ready," she said. Hayes even made it to school on senior skip day.
"Everyone is tempted to skip every once in a while," she said. "I know the Lord helped me get on the bus."
But mere presence is not enough to master a subject, her father said: "Monique could have been in school every day for 13 years and not done well. She did both."
Hayes and Sue also reflect a changing American society: Twenty years ago, staying home on a blah day to watch movies and fold laundry in most cases did little to disrupt the family. Today, when so many families have two working parents, a child missing a day of school means a parent missing a day on the job.
That was something Sue never wanted to do. "My parents came here from Seoul hoping for a better life," she said. "I know how hard they work."
Sue, who is bound for the University of Maryland in College Park and a journalism degree, works in her mother's Rockville deli, Dineros, from 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., and then goes to her second job at Sassy Cleaner's.
In years past, the unusual students with 12 or 13 years of perfect attendance have been recognized at awards banquets, driven to school in white limos or invited to Baltimore Orioles games to see another perfect attendance record holder: Cal Ripken Jr.
But there was nothing for Sue. "Just the attendance lady knew. And I didn't press it because I knew people were so busy."
Back at Wyngate, Wally, Trevor, Ting-Shen and Jackson excitedly wave the oversize perfect attendance certificates they have just won as they race out the bright purple school doors and into the arms of summer.
Will they make it as far as Hayes and Sue? "I can't imagine," says their first-grade teacher, Deana June, envisioning strep throat, chickenpox, bad moods. "To think they'd let nothing interfere with their ability to go to school. It would be just phenomenal."
CAPTION: Carrollton Elementary Principal Rise Gaines hugs student Kimberly Early.
CAPTION: Hye Lin Sue isa student witha perfect attendance record for 12 years. She says part of the reason for her good attendance record is a strong sense of duty instilled in her by her parents.